If American civic life can be said to include a sacrament, it’s voting. And like sacraments of the religious sort, voting has been the subject of fierce disagreement and passion — as Saturday’s 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala., attests. Today’s Americans will do well to remember that the reason marchers were beaten and gassed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, was that they were seeking the right to vote.
Thankfully, proposals pertaining to voting aren’t stirring such intensity at the Minnesota Legislature this year. Since voters in 2012 rejected a photo ID requirement for voting, partisan hostilities over possible election changes have calmed considerably.
Still, two ideas touted by new DFL Secretary of State Steve Simon are being met with more suspicion from the Legislature’s Republicans than they seem to warrant. One would allow all 17-year-olds — not just those who turn 18 before the next election — to register to vote. The other would convert in-person absentee voting in the last two weeks before an election to true “early voting,” eliminating complicated ballot-processing requirements.
Both ideas are well-established features of election laws in other states: 22 states plus the District of Columbia allow 17-year-olds (and, in eight of them, 16-year-olds) to register; 20 states allow voters to cast ballots before Election Day, in some cases as long as a month before. Notably, both Republican red and Democratic blue states are on those two lists.
Both policies have been shown to yield improvement in voter participation — something Minnesota has always prized yet lately has seen eroding. Uncharacteristically, Minnesota did not lead the nation in voter turnout in 2014. It ranked sixth among the states, with only half of eligible voters casting ballots. Turnout for the Aug. 12 primary was an abysmal 10.2 percent, the third-lowest in state records.
That trend line should pique both parties’ interest in policy changes that might spur voter participation. Bipartisan support has emerged on the 17-year-old registration bill. Its House sponsor is GOP Rep. Dean Urdahl of Grove City.
A retired civics teacher, Urdahl says he has seen interest in voting increase among the 17-year-olds who can already register — that is, those who will reach the age of eligibility, 18, before the next Election Day. He’s convinced that giving all 17-year-olds that chance, whether they will be 18 before the next election or the one the following year, would inspire more young people to believe that voting is not only for their elders, but for them, too.
That idea could use a push. In 2014, only 18 percent of eligible Minnesota 18- to 24-year-olds voted on Nov. 4.
Early voting faces more GOP resistance, even though it offers a number of advantages over in-person, “no-excuses” absentee voting, which was enacted in 2013 with bipartisan support. Early voting is less costly to administer. It spares voters all of the absentee ballot rigmarole — no secrecy envelopes, identification numbers and election official signatures are required. It allows voters to directly cast ballots, without delay. Errors can be corrected immediately, assuring voters that their ballots will be counted. (That assurance is still lacking with absentee voting. While Minnesota simplified its absentee ballot procedures after the 2008 U.S. Senate recount, 1.3 percent of those ballots in 2014 were still found to be in error and went uncounted.)
Early voting also looks likely to be popular. Dropping the requirement that an excuse be provided to vote absentee contributed to a 55 percent increase in such voting in 2014, compared with 2010, the most recent previous nonpresidential election.
House GOP elections chair Tim Sanders of Blaine acknowledges those pluses. But he said this week that his caucus worries about any change that might increase the potential for voter fraud and the burden on local election administrators. Sanders says he’s examining early voting and consulting with Simon, who as a member of the House held the elections committee gavel in 2013-14.
We hope their talks bear fruit. Our plea would be for early voting to be confined to a brief period, say 10 days before Election Day. Why so short? Because campaigns matter. A 10-day window would allow early voters to witness the preponderance of the campaign, while still providing two weekends of open polls for those seeking to vote on a nonwork day.
On these and other election law matters, bipartisanship also matters. Like several of his predecessors, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has wisely said he would not sign into law election changes that do not win legislative votes from both parties. Simon’s ideas in his first session as secretary of state seem worthy of wide support. We hope he gets it.